Bianca Roters

Bianca Roters studied German and English/American Studies and pedagogy (for the first state teaching exam) at the TU Dortmund and the University of Virginia. She gained her PhD from Bielefeld University with her interdisciplinary work on the professionalisation of teachers and passed the second state teaching exam at the beginning of 2013, which concluded her training period at a grammar school in North Rhine-Westphalia. Since April 2013 she has directed the interdisciplinary teacher research centre at the University of Cologne.

On the trail of the past...
Cultural retrospection in literary texts

Bianca Roters

The question, however, is this: Can the history of the Holocaust be taught? I think not. We must attempt it nevertheless. I know I am not equipped for the task, but I will never stop trying. (Elie Wiesel – translated from the German).

Immediately following my teacher training period I was given the opportunity to spend three weeks at the GEI in Braunschweig. As textbooks had influenced both the content and methodology of my teaching over the last two years, particularly lessons for lower secondary school pupils, I was able to view them from a renewed analytical perspective.

The focus of my work at the GEI was to investigate which literature for children and young people, that broadly addresses the Shoah, is referenced in German textbooks for lower secondary pupils and how these literary texts are used educationally. In total 55 textbooks from the period between 1990 and 2010 were examined. As textbooks can be viewed as the application of cultural discourse the didactic use to which literary texts are put is an important component of memory culture and provides children and young people with a permanent access-point to history, beyond biographical and communicative remembering. The memories of what are known as the third and fourth generation will therefore become the memories that are passed on.

The study of monographs in literature lessons and the use of autobiographical witness accounts in textbooks enable pupils to gain an insight into the individual stories and memories of Jewish survivors and their children written in a literary style. Learning with and from biographies can be categorised, according to Becher [1] (2008), as a new research discipline. This became the starting point for my investigation.

“Dear Kitty…”

Unsurprisingly the ‘Diary of Anne Frank’ was the book most frequently referenced in the textbooks examined. It was referred to in books for all school types, usually in those for years 7 and 8 (12 to 14 year-olds), but it also occurred in year 9 texts. One reason for the dominating presence of the text could be that the protagonist, Anne Frank, dies of ‘natural causes’ (epidemic typhus) and children need a ‘conciliatory ending’ according to the interview series with children carried out by Flügel (2009). The family conflicts and confusing feelings of first love contained in the narrative allow young people to identify with the text without disregarding the historical context, which should be emphasised through additional teaching material or project work. One textbook places photographs and texts concerning the German occupation of the Netherlands alongside excerpts from the diary. In order to give pupils the opportunity to confront their emotions, some textbooks encourage the readers to keep diaries while they read to book in which to express the feelings it arouses in them.

In some of the studied textbooks the excerpts from the diary are placed under the heading ‘civil courage’. However Miep Gies, who provided the family with food and books during their time in hiding, is not mentioned. One or two textbooks place the Diary of Anne Frank on the same pages as the topics ‘Resistance during the Third Reich’ or the ‘White Rose’ and group them together in terms of interpretation and tasks.

Other books for young people that were quantifiably referred to, albeit to a lesser degree, in the textbooks for years 6-8 included in the study:

  • Friedrich, Hans Peter Richter (1974)
  • When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Judith Kerr (1973)
  • Alan and Naomi, Myron Levoy (1977)

The text extracts provide children and young people with a way to examine the German National Socialist past through fiction. Factors of age and approach may have been the primary criteria for text selection, rather perhaps, than the historic portrayal or possibility of educational work related to memory. As Flügel (2009) asserted, pupils’ interpretation of history frequently follows ‘a redeeming narrative’ [2]. A dichotomous presentation of perpetrators and victims, as particularly evident in the book Friedrich by Hans Peter Richter, may contribute to a stereotypical interpretation of history, in which the question of personal responsibility does not arise (see also Flügel 2009, p. 122ff). In order to do justice to the complexity of the subject and to avoid simplistic historical interpretations the curricula guidelines issued by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum advise not covering the subject before year 6 (11-12 years of age).

“How it was then….”

In books for years 9 and 10 (ages 14-16) the literary texts are frequently accompanied by additional information. This creates a differentiated view. Newer textbooks critically question the role of memory processes. One method used is to quote polls examining the role played by discussions of the ‘Third Reich’. In one survey, whose context (types of question, number of people polled) is not specified, 61 per cent of those questioned agreed with the statement, ‘It is time to finally let the subject of the Nazi past rest”. Pupils were required to discuss similar statements in small groups and to either accept or reject them. The pupils were subsequently presented with various text extracts, from works such as Still Alive by Ruth Klüger or Panu Moilanen’s summary of the Der Weißen Rose; intended to encourage the pupils to reflect on the significance of memory.

The textbooks studied included the following texts and themes:

  • Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, the autobiography of Ruth Klüger (1992) in which she describes her childhood and adolescence as a Jew during the National Socialist era.
  • Schindler‘s List, a novel by Thomas Keneally (1982) and film by Steven Spielberg (1993)
  • Film script of  Life is Beautiful (Original title La vita è bella) Italian film and tragi-comedy from Roberto Benigni (1997) about a father who explains to his five-year old son that their life in a concentration camp is a long game in which one must gain as many points as possible by completing a series of challenges.
  • Historical flyers from the White Rose organisation and text extracts concerning resistance in the Third Reich, including an excerpt from an autobiographical text ‘To the Memory of Sophie Scholl’ (Dem Andenken an Sophie Scholl)l by Else Gebel (1945), who was imprisoned with Sophie Scholl and wrote her memoirs immediately after the war.
  • Topic: ‘Young people under the Swastika’: Text extracts (including  Im roten Hinterhaus [In the red house at the back ]by Peter Berger, 1967 and Friedrich by Hans Peter Richter, 1961), poems and letters about how the ‘swinging-youth’ were treated by the National Socialists.
  • Topic: ‘Persecution and Exile’ various text extracts (including Ein Emigrant [An Immigrant] by Klaus Mann) and poetry (including Über die Bezeichnung Emigranten [On the Term Immigrants ] by Bertolt Brecht).

The studied texts vary in terms of genre (biographical fiction, historical fiction, perpetrator literature [Täterliteratur]) and (memory-related) educational context. A coherent concept, in which literature could be drawn on when teaching democracy for example, as envisaged in some countries, such as the USA, and the respective Holocaust curricula, has only been identified sporadically in textbooks to date.

In general the depiction of the Holocaust was shaped by the emphases of the individual publishing houses, and this was the case for many years, but there was also a striking reduction during the 2000s in the inclusion of literary texts addressing the Shoah. In addition only a few textbooks included information concerning Jewish history, language and culture in contrast to comparatively numerous references to resistance during the Third Reich. This may result in a skewed representation of Jewish history where the Holocaust is the singular aspect portrayed.

I would like to take this opportunity to warmly thank the staff of the GEI and the guest house as well as the library team for their help and support. I would also like to extend my personal thanks to Erin McGlothlin (Washington University, St. Louis, USA) who sparked my interest in the literature of the Shoah through her inspiring seminars and enabled me to gain an even deeper understanding of the subject in conversation with her.

[1] Andrea Becher, Holocaust und Nationalsozialismus im Sachunterricht thematisieren – Konsequenzen aus einer qualitativ-empirischen Studie zu Vorstellungen von Kindern. In:, Ausgabe 11/October 2008. Available online (last accessed 15.5.2013).

[2] Alexandra Flügel, „Kinder können das auch schon mal wissen…“: Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Spiegel kindlicher Reflexions- und Kommunikationsprozesse, Opladen, Budrich UniPress 2009, p.312.

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